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Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” starts in medias res and is narrated in first person through the main character: a young unnamed woman, occasionally referred to as “the Best Friend.” The narrator struggles with her friend’s illness and impeding death, and often uses sarcasm to evade the subject when it comes up, or chooses to remove herself from the situation entirely. Through the narrator’s perception of the world and her situation, we learn that she is cautious, that she finds the idea of fearlessness perplexing, and that she has difficulty facing grievous events.

Throughout the story, she also continuously comes back to a chimp who had been taught sign language, which seems to be a symbol for the narrator herself. When first taught to sign, perhaps the chimp’s first translatable act of freewill, she lies, and when losing her baby, the chimp again is able to express this grief through language. The chimp’s behavior foreshadows the narrator’s, but also allows the narrator to better acknowledge her own sorrow.

“And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words… fluent now in the language of grief.” (Hempel, 40)


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